Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 1, 2005
SubUrban: Tam Van Tran
Knoxville Museum of Art, Knoxville, Tenn., April 22–August 7, 2005
Tam Van Tran. Untitled, (2004). Beet juice, pigment, binder, colored pencil and foil on paper. 80 ½ x 69 in. Collection of Jack and Ann Rabinowitz, Palm Beach, FL

SubUrban: Tam Van Tran features the paintings and “sculptural drawings” of Tam Van Tran, a Vietnamese-born, Los Angeles–based artist who combines organic substances such as chlorophyll, spirulina algae, and beet juice with acrylic paint, canvas, paper, Wite-out liquid, foil, and metal staples. The exhibition is the latest in the Knoxville Museum of Art’s ongoing program, the SubUrban series, which serves as the first solo museum show and catalogue in the United States for emerging contemporary artists. Tran has participated in group and solo exhibitions since 1999, including the 2004 Whitney Biennial, and he was selected for participation in the series by Dana Self, the Barbara W. and Bernard E. Bernstein Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at Knoxville. Self, formerly of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, is a twelve-year veteran in promoting the work of emerging artists, and her prior curatorial contributions to the SubUrban series include exhibitions of video art, gouache-on-panel paintings, and oversize sculptures of jewelry.

SubUrban: Tam Van Tran contains eight works in one gallery, including two large “sculptural drawings” that approximately 7 × 7 feet in size, which extended between 10 and 21 inches from the wall. These works, Beetle Manifesto VIII (2002) and Beetle Manifesto IX (2003), were placed at opposite ends of the room. The artist has combined pigment with chlorophyll and spirulina to create green curvilinear bands that radiate outward from the center; the gentle folds of the paper underline a sense of organic design. The glistening sheen that covers the surface is revealed, on closer inspection, to be thousands of metal staples, used for both visual impact and structural support. In addition, many of the edges of the layered papers were punched with a hole punch, providing mechanically achieved decorative borders as well as strings of uniform dots that unify the composition. The two works fluctuate between the organic and synthetic, regularity and accident, as the artist combines materials that fuse at a certain distance while at the same time reasserting the individual parts, as if under a microscope. While Tran cites Francisco de Goya, Odilon Redon, and Charles Burchfield as influences, I was reminded of the “Tabulas” and “Laisées” of Simon Hantaï: acrylic paintings on canvas that were manipulated through folding, tying, or sewing to achieve a stunning cooperation between simple repetitive actions and accidental patterns.

Four of the other works fall within a more typical definition of painting, created with acrylic paint on canvas; all rely, to some degree, on references to grids or circuit boards. One of the paintings, Lover of Air (2001), combines brightly colored grids of empty squares with curving tendrils that appear to reach into the red background. Some of the tendrils include rows of painted squares, some blank and some filled with color, that end abruptly with the line itself, suggesting either a fungal growth or an elevated train. Like the other acrylic paintings in this group, Lover of Air hovers between an apparently cellular-level view and a more macrocosmic one, demonstrating a timeless yet fantastically futuristic vision. Two other paintings, Monticello (2000) and Algorhythmic Conversion (2001), appear as either floating space stations or facial images reminiscent of Tlaloc, the goggle-eyed Mesoamerican rain god represented at Teotihuacán. As the large-scale works in the exhibition are destabilized by the combination of organic (thus, inherently perishable) and synthetic materials, these paintings tend to subvert the viewer’s ability to fix on one particular visual interpretation.

In Suprematist Empire (2003), a painting created with pigment, silica binder, Wite-out, paper, ink, and foil on canvas, Tran draws a connection to both Kasimir Malevich’s white-on-white squares on canvas and, arguably, his architectural plaster models, or “Planits,” of the 1920s that served as three-dimensional recreations of the world in a Suprematist mold. Similarly, in the aforementioned acrylic paintings and in Suprematist Empire, Tran manages to create abstract works of art that evoke a sense of futuristic, technological possibilities combined with a transcendent otherworldliness. This painting, primarily white with flecks of gold foil, features a semicircular area of dots created with the hole punch, some painted black and others white, that appears to have slipped down the front of the canvas, due to its placement at the bottom edge of the composition.

The most recently completed work in this exhibition, the fragile Untitled (2004), was displayed behind glass because it was created using beet juice along with colored pencil, foil, and pigment. The paper surface is nearly covered with swipes of color, swirls, striped circles, and repeating patterns of lines, with a small white circle placed slightly left of center serving as a focal point amid the wash of fluid, beet-colored shapes. Except for the pure white circle, the imagery overlaps and fades in and out, corresponding to the contemplation of impermanence implied by the use of the beet juice alongside the more traditional art materials.

Tran’s work is visually exciting and highly approachable, reminding viewers that experimentation within the medium of painting continues to challenge us as it may also test our understanding of the term “multimedia.” Tran’s “sculptural drawings” appeal to both the haptic and the optic, and the chosen materials, including ordinary office supplies as well as organic substances, leave behind any notion that painting is simply pigment placed upon a two-dimensional surface.

Wendy Koenig
Assistant Professor of Art History, Art Department, Middle Tennessee State University